Is it Moral? County Clerk refuses to issue marriage licenses

Here is the news story: Clerk defies U.S. high court, denies gay marriage licenses. A county clerk in Kentucky is refusing to issue any marriage licenses to any couple, so as not to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. She cites her conscience and religious beliefs, against gay marriage, as the basis for her decision. She also prohibits her staff from issuing the licenses.

“Citing her religious objections, Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis has refused to issue any marriage licenses since the Supreme Court in June ruled that same-sex couples had the right to marry under the U.S. Constitution. On Monday the same court rejected Davis’ request for an emergency order allowing her to deny marriage licenses to same-sex couples while she appeals a federal judge’s order requiring her to issue them.”

Subsequent to the publication of the above-quoted news story, the court has jailed Kim Davis and ordered her staff to issue marriage licenses. The staff have complied.

“In his Aug. 12 opinion, U.S. District Judge David L. Bunning said the state was not asking Davis to condone same-sex unions on religious grounds. He said she was “simply being asked to signify that couples meet the legal requirements to marry.”

Does Kim Davis have any moral or religious basis for refusing to issue marriage licenses? In my theological opinion, from a Catholic point of view, she does not, for several reasons.

Same-sex marriage is legal, and the role of county clerk includes issuing marriage licenses. The issuance of a marriage license to any couple by the clerk does not imply that the clerk approves of the union. She does not sin by issuing a license to a same-sex couple, since she has no authority to decide the question of legality, nor to defy the law and courts. And she is not giving her personal approval to any couples who receive a marriage license. The license only indicates that the union is a legal marriage; it does not indicate, for any couple, that the union is a religious marriage.

In the past, did she deny a marriage license to non-Christian couples (atheists, Jews, Muslims, others) on the basis of her belief that those marriages are not a valid Sacrament? If she had done so, it would have become public knowledge. In the past, did she interview each Christian couple, to make certain that they are not remarrying after divorce or were otherwise unfit for marriage? No, she did not. So if it is moral for her to issue a legal license to marry to other couples, without regard for her religious beliefs about marriage, then it is also moral in the case of same-sex marriages.

Kim Davis is a Protestant, and Apostolic Christian. She has been divorced three times and married four times (twice to the same man). She had a conversion experience a few years ago, after the death of her mother-in-law. More here.

Divorce and remarriage is against the clear teaching of Jesus in the Gospels. So it is ironic that she denies marriage licenses to those whose marriages contradict the Gospel teaching, while her own past marriages also contradict Gospel teaching. It is also indefensible that she denies marriage licenses to heterosexual couples. Her position would be more consistent if she only denied licenses to same-sex couples. It is unconscionable for her to deny licenses to couples whose marriages are in accord with Gospel teaching. So her position is not only a misunderstanding of her moral responsibility, but also hypocritical.

My belief as a Catholic is that same-sex marriages are not a true type of natural marriage, nor a true Sacrament of marriage. However, same-sex marriage is currently legal in the United States. And it would be immoral, in the present circumstance, for Catholics or Christians to unlawfully impede same-sex couples from following the law and their own conscience. A Catholic with a good understanding of the moral law is not thereby given the authority from God to impose his or her conscience on others.

County clerks and other government employees who must issue marriage licenses as part of their job requirements can do so without sin, since they do not have the authority to decide the question and the marriages are in fact legal marriages. If they find themselves unable to do so in good conscience — I would say due to a sincere but mistaken conscience — then they should resign their job.

We Christians are not authorized by Christ to force others to believe what we believe, nor to force them to comply with our beliefs contrary to their own beliefs and good will.

I strongly disagree with the position stated by presidential candidate Ted Cruz (found on his website here)

“Today, judicial lawlessness crossed into judicial tyranny. Today, for the first time ever, the government arrested a Christian woman for living according to her faith. This is wrong. This is not America.

“I stand with Kim Davis. Unequivocally. I stand with every American that the Obama Administration is trying to force to choose between honoring his or her faith or complying with a lawless court opinion.”

The recent Supreme Court opinion, approving gay marriage, is contrary to Christian teaching on marriage and on morality. However, it is the law of the land, and not “a lawless court opinion”. It is a mistake made in good conscience by many voters and politicians. A mistaken court opinion is not “judicial tyranny” or “judicial lawlessness”.

Kim Davis was not jailed for “living according to her faith”. She was jailed for refusing to do her sworn duty as a county clerk, for refusing to issue marriage licenses to any and all persons. That license does not constitute a natural marriage, nor a Sacrament of marriage. It only indicates that the union is a legal marriage, which it factually is.

I don’t think bakers would sin if they made a cake for a gay marriage. But I also think that bakers should not be forced to act against their sincere but mistaken conscience. The situation is different for a county clerk. A couple can find a different baker to make a cake for them. The county clerk refused to issues marriage licenses to all couples, and forbid her staff to do so, preventing many persons living in that county from marrying. She has no moral or legal ground to stand on. If she cannot fulfill her duties due to her sincere but mistaken conscience, then she should resign or be fired.

Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and translator of the Catholic Public Domain Version of the Bible.

Please take a look at this list of my books and booklets, and see if any topic interests you.

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6 Responses to Is it Moral? County Clerk refuses to issue marriage licenses

  1. Joshua says:

    Mr. Conte, this is how I see it. Same-sex marriage is not a constitutional right, regardless of what the Supreme Court has to say. Same-sex marriage is not the law of the land, the Constitution is the law of the land. There is nothing in the Constitution that guarantees the right of same sex couples to marry. In fact, the Constitution does not guarantee the right of anyone to marry – because the Constitution is silent on the subject of marriage. The five justices who ruled in favor of same-sex marriage being Constitutional have broken the law by inserting a right into the Constitution that doesn’t exist. The congress decides what is in the Constitution, not the Supreme Court. The job of the Court is to interpret the meaning of the Constitution, and the meaning of the Constitution is in the letter of the Constitution. Therefore, those justices have broken the law and should be removed from the Court. No one should be forced to comply with a “law” that breaks the law.

  2. robbiegael says:

    Just because same sex ‘marriage’ is legal doesn’t make it a marriage or make it right.

    Just because the law of the land says 2 men or 2 women can marry does not make it a marriage. It isn’t and never can be a marriage. A marriage can only be between a man and a woman. This is not an opinion but a fact based on reason and natural law.

    So called same sex marriage is a man made law. It has no basis in the law of nature or the law of God.

    According to your reasoning if the law of the land says that it was all right for a man to marry a dog then this would be a marriage. Because the state then says that the marriage of a man to a dog is legal that would make it a legal union and therefore a clerk would have to hand over the marriage licence.

    “Let us not be naive: this is not simply a political struggle, but it is an attempt to destroy God’s plan. It is not just a bill (a mere instrument) but a ‘move’ of the father of lies who seeks to confuse and deceive the children of God.”

    • Ron Conte says:

      I’m not arguing in favor of same-sex marriage. I clearly said that it is not a true type of marriage. But the county clerk has a duty to follow the law, and if she cannot, then she cannot have that job. Same-sex marriage is legal, even though the law is wrong. It would not be a sin for a clerk to issue a license to a legally marriage couple, saying that they are legally married.

      The issue here is how Christians should behave in a pluralistic society, where a majority of citizens do not agree with our views. Are we unable to participate in that society, and unable to hold various jobs, because we insist that everyone speak and act according to our understanding of right and wrong? My view is that we need not impose our understanding on those who disagree.

  3. Dot says:

    The question is not whether she sins by granting the licenses. Neither does it concern me whether or not her refusal to do so is lawless. Even Rosa Parks broke the law. If this clerk resigned, another would replace her. She made a personal decision to sacrifice her comfort and good name to make this protest and again give voice to the Americans whose votes time and again have been tossed out by judges. I admire her for it.

  4. Mr. W says:

    Mr. Conte, with regard to how Christians should live in a pluralistic society, aren’t you then saying that we should just resign ourselves to relativism and accept the fact that “our truth” is no greater than that of others?

    I think we *should* strive to “impose” our understanding of truth on society, for we believe that we have *the* Truth (with a cap T).

    I agree with your assessment about where sin falls. But I don’t think her stand was based on “not sinning”, but upon witnessing to the Truth.

  5. denny says:

    Ron, I have read several of your works with great interest and as world events unfold believe that some of your eschatology is right on target. On this matter however I think you have missed the mark on several levels.
    First of all when you say that gay marriage is the law of the land I believe that you are mistaken. This is a meme inculcated by the perverse mainstream media in support of a corrupted Supreme Court. It is the law of the land that the two justices who had already performed gay weddings should have recused themselves from submitting an opinion, and having failed to do so, have rendered the decision invalid from a legal standpoint from the get-go. Secondly, approximately 75% of Kentuckians voted to maintain the God-given standard that marriage is between one man and one woman- that law is still on the books and the Kentucky legislature has done nothing to change that, and probably won’t because the people have already spoken loudly to the contrary. Thirdly, no opinion given by the Supreme Court has ever or can ever be considered a “law”. The Constitution relegates all law making capacity to the Congress, and to the Congress alone. A ruling or opinion is not a law. So, Kim Davis was upholding the laws of Kentucky as they are currently instituted by not issuing same sex marriage licenses. I strongly agree with Ted Cruz that “Today, judicial lawlessness crossed into judicial tyranny.”
    I don’t mean to beat up on you Ron, but I am 180 degrees out on your take from a moral standpoint.
    Legal issues aside, I am further at variance with your interpretation of Ms. Davis’s actions from a moral standpoint. Kim Davis was jailed for living according to her faith. She was targeted by the radical homosexuals just as the Christian bakers were. There are numerous other clerks in the state easily accessible to all who were issuing same sex licenses. Kim’s actions were denying this service to absolutely no one. Getting a license was not the point, just as being able to “get married” is not the point. The point is that all must bend the knee to the homosexual agenda. Please read this quote from Abraham Lincoln speaking against slavery. If you replace “slavery” with “homosexuality” you will see it is the same fight all over again.
    “What will convince them? This, and this only: cease to call slavery wrong, and join them in calling it right. And this must be done thoroughly – done in acts as well as in words. Silence will not be tolerated – we must place ourselves avowedly with them[.] …
    If slavery is right, all words, acts, laws, and constitutions against it are themselves wrong, and should be silenced and swept away. If it is right, we cannot justly object to its nationality – its universality; if it is wrong, they cannot insist upon its extension – its enlargement[.] …
    Can we cast our votes with their view, and against our own? In view of our moral, social, and political responsibilities, can we do this?”
    Which brings up the case of another abysmally wrong Supreme Court ruling- Dred Scott v. Sandford, 1857.
    If Christians were to follow your line of reasoning during that time of history no Christian would have assisted in the Underground Railroad which “illegally” freed many slaves. If as you suggest otherwise, that Christians are committing no sin by following orders, then the guards at Auschwitz would not have been prosecuted because as they professed, they were only following orders from their superiors. A defense which, by the way, did not pan out so well for them.
    Kim Davis cannot be fired, as she was elected by the folks of Kentucky. I do not think that she will be recalled as I stated above the vast majority of the electorate agree with her. Furthermore, I do not believe that she should resign as she is the only person in the entire scenario that is upholding the law.

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